What's the rush?
As a trainer, it is common to see behavioural issues in horses arise from the rider's lack of patience. Whether it is when schooling and trying to teach a new exercise or out on the trail; so many riders expect their horses to just "know", to be safe and complient.
I get many horses brought to me who have one or two areas of complaint. Often, it is bucking or bolting, sometimes it is napping and others it is refusing to participate at all. What the owners don't understand, all too often, is that their horses are telling them what is causing them to display these behaviours - and they just aren't being listened to.
A majority of these unknowing riders believe that the undesired behaviour just needs "correcting" and that it is a localised problem. In reality, all cases I see require the horse to be restarted in one way or another. These "issues" being a single problem could not be further from the truth. It has become the norm for horses to be used as tools and not the athletes they truly are. For this reason, the horse's muscles are not always worked correctly, they are not strengthened before being asked for "more". It is common practice for horses to be made to work and not asked. If a horse becomes heavy, unresponsive or disagreeable, they are pushed forward, pulled in and are made accustomed to a firmer hand.
What I try to educate people on is the art of softness - being able to communicate with your horse with nothing more than a gesture. I aim to show people how to ask, not to dictate. To do this, the horse needs to have their mind engaged, they need clear boundaries and must understand what is expected of them. Every single thing we do with our horses must have a purpose, otherwise, why should they do anything for us? I often ask the impossible of my students... "to forget how to ride". I ask them to start over, to learn how to balance and how to play. We start to build our horses into strong partners who can move with suppleness and lightness. Once our horses are responsive and compliant (because they want to be!) we can start to ask for a little more.
I bought my haflinger, Thor, for hacking. He was to be my quiet, happy horse - and we were to live out my childhood dream of riding the countryside together!
In the beginning, my own trainer told me to take things slow. I was asked to take away my bit, the saddle, to start from the beginning. It took me years to listen. Eventually, when I did, I found myself moving the hips...moving the shoulders...halting... Everything I did was in walk. It was explained to me that we were not to continue to a different gait until my horse had mastered all of the given movements on both reins. Needless to say, I tried! By speeding up before my horse was ready, he was not responsive, I encountered bolshy behaviour and as a consequence I was lacking confidence. Back to the beginning...again! This time, I listened. Everytime it became tough, everytime I found it boring, we would play another game or try something new. All of this was playtime in the school. I would practice exercises in the stable or on the yard but I never pushed my horse further than he was ready for.
The most valuable lesson I learnt was this: "If you can't stop your horse on a dime, with a loose rein, in a controlled environment - you have absolutely no business riding out on roads or fields...on a hack!" Well, as you can imagine, this did not go down well! However, knowing how difficult to handle and ride my horse had been, I was committed to my learning. I continued with quiet work, always giving my horse good reason to move with me. Over a relatively short period of time, we were building trust.
Patience not only allowed my horse and I to master our movements, but also taught us how to read each other and how to communicate quietly. I now know that when I take my horse out I have tools which I can use - relaxation cues and exercises to engage the mind should I ever need to use them. More importantly, I know that my horse will stop if I ask. I know that if I ride out, I can do so "on the buckle". I know that my horse will look to me if he is fearful and with that, we can work through different scenarios together.
So, what's the rush?
In less than a year I went from a fearful rider with an uncontrollable horse to a bitless, bridle-less ride who I can confide in. With a solid foundation, progress was imminent; the trust built in that time is unlike anything I have ever known with my horse. Rather than experiencing the same issues and trying to "fix" my horse, I can instead work with my horse, not against him.